For Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price, Monday’s Leap Day was an extra special anomaly of sorts.
While others were celebrating a day that occurs once every four years, for the town’s 16-year police chief it marked the first in almost two decades that he was packing up an office and preparing for the next step in his life. But, unlike 16 years ago when he was leaving his hometown of Montgomery County, MD, to make the hour-long (on a good day) drive south to Leesburg to start a new life, this week served as the curtain call for a 40-year law enforcement career.
As Price let the totality of his final day on the job set in, he sat comfortably in his now sparsely-furnished office, where in a few months presumably will sit a new chief of police.
Making a Difference
Although Price will no longer be at the helm of the department, he is leaving a memento behind for his successor. Hanging on the wall behind his desk is a Norman Rockwell painting, called “The Runaway,” which depicts a young
boy sitting alongside a police officer at a diner counter, gazing admiringly at him with the police officer looking fondly at the child. For Price, the heart of the message of that painting is what kept him going.
“It reminds me of the statement of ‘make a difference,’” he said. “The child, I suspect in those days, the 1950s—I would hope still today—that they know if they’re in trouble they can turn to the police. Police know that it’s their job to be a guardian and make a difference in a child’s life,” Price said.
As it turns out, it was a child that was at the center of a defining moment in Price’s policing career. In the mid-1980s when he was a young patrol officer, with young children at home himself, Price was working with the Montgomery County Police Department and helping in the search for a missing child.
“We searched for hours and hours and couldn’t find him,” he recalled. “But I remember vividly … going into a parking lot and I saw something under a tree. The hand of God probably directed me. There’s a body and the limbs are all askew, and I’m thinking the kid is dead. But I called out his name and he stirred. He was fine, and the sense of relief that came over us and his parents. … The words were not spoken but the sense of relief in their face was something that has stayed with me forever. I knew I made a difference in their lives.”
The Evolving Police Scene
Much has changed since Price put on his first uniform in the 1970s. He recalls his first policing job when he worked in the Ocean City (MD) Police Department following his senior year of college before beginning police academy training.
“It was so far removed from what policing is today,” he said. “They did give you a gun, but you checked it out and checked it in at the beginning and end of your shift. They gave you six bullets and told you how to load the chamber.”
Following college and a career with the military, Price decided to take advantage of a government program called LEAP, which would fund his advanced education if he pursued a career in law enforcement. He would spend the first 25 years of his law enforcement career there, before being hired as Leesburg’s police chief in March 2000.
Price gives the lion’s share of credit to his wife, Lori, and their three children for making the move from his hometown to Leesburg easier.
“To pick up and move was a tremendous challenge for them all, it was the easiest for me,” he said. “They have just been a tremendous support system for me.”
And the Town of Leesburg has become an adopted hometown for the Prices, who still plan to spend some time in Leesburg, although Price said they are looking forward to enjoying the majority of their time in their other home near Hilton Head, SC.
For Price, his unabashed first priority in retirement is being a grandfather which, despite his success in Maryland and Leesburg, he is proud to say is “the best job in the world.” Price has three children and three grandchildren, who live locally.
He is confident that he is leaving the department in good hands, with Captain Vanessa Grigsby serving as interim police chief until the new hire is made. The department, which has almost doubled in size since his first day in the office just as the town’s population has done, now includes 87 sworn officers.
Eye on Community Policing
While Monday was certainly a day of joy and looking back, for Price and his brothers in blue, many were still reeling from the tragic events over the weekend in Prince William County, where a young police officer was shot and killed on her first day on the job. Price said it was never lost on him that such a tragedy could occur in Leesburg and his goal every day did not change.
“We’ve always tried to stress to our officers that the best win you can have in every situation is everybody go home at night—even the bad guy,” he said, although he noted that, obviously, the bad guy could be going to a different kind of “home,” namely a jail cell.
While nationwide views of law enforcement, in terms of tactical operations, have certainly received their fair share of scrutiny over the past few years, for Price his best successes as a chief have been when force could be avoided.
Even still, his happiest memories on the job have been when he was able to give back to Leesburg’s residents.
“A police department has to be part of the community, not an occupying force that comes in and does what it needs to do and leaves,” he said. “Feeding kids and moms at Thanksgiving, taking kids shopping for the holidays, that’s being part of the community. That’s what community policing should be; looking to solve problems before problems evolve.”